The Interior Department is dropping controversial plans to dramatically increase logging in western Oregon's forests, some of the nation's densest carbon stores.
The move scraps a Bush-era decision to rezone 2.6 million acres of Bureau of Land Management forests, which would have tripled current logging production and opened old-growth forests to clear-cutting. The attempt prompted a lawsuit by 13 environmental groups after the rule was finalized late last year.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar yesterday called the Western Oregon Plan Revisions "legally indefensible" because BLM had ignored key Endangered Species Act consultation requirements. Also yesterday, Salazar announced that he will ask a court to annul last year's changes to the northern spotted owl's protected habitat, which enabled the timber plan to go through.
Conservation groups proclaimed the announcement a victory not only for wildlife but for the climate, as well.
"A lot more big, old-growth trees will remain standing and continue to suck up carbon," said Michael Francis, national forest director at the Wilderness Society.
A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the Pacific Northwest's forests housed some of the world's highest levels of carbon per acre of land.
In addition, in its environmental analysis, BLM admitted that its plan would increase fire risk, said Dominick Della Sala, chief scientist for the Oregon-based National Center for Conservation Science and Policy. That's because many big trees in old forests are more resistant to fires, and logging them leaves leftover wood that is more flammable, he explained.
Climate change influencing agency decisions
Meanwhile, converting Oregon's older forests to younger ones might release anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of the carbon they contain, according to Mark Harmon, a forest ecologist at Oregon State University who studies the state's forest carbon. Della Sala said that the logging plan would have released up to 180 million tons of forest carbon, the equivalent of operating a 585-megawatt coal-fired power plant for more than three decades.
As the administration crafts a new forest management plan for western Oregon, Salazar noted that climate change is broadly affecting everything the Interior Department does.
"And that's why today it is more urgent than ever before that our land management decisions are based on the best science that we have," he said.
But whether that means the department might explicitly consider carbon storage as a factor when making future forest management and timber sale decisions was unclear.
Conservation groups are pushing for it. The Wilderness Society, for example, has recommended that the department incorporate climate change into land management plans. Francis called it "socially unacceptable" to log any more old-growth forests.
Salazar noted that there is "a broadening agreement" about the need to re-evaluate old-growth logging on BLM lands, but declined to give further details.
Tom Strickland, Interior's assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, said public forest management decisions are an opportunity to sequester more carbon that is "very much at the front and center of our minds." Strickland noted, however, that the previous administration had not collected much data for his team to work with, and they were urgently catching up.
Timber industry concerned about economy, litigation
"Until there's a decision that this becomes a reason for managing forests, that still will lag. At this point, there's no official policy," said Harmon, whom BLM has consulted on his forest carbon models.
In an attempt to avoid wounding the timber industry, which is already hurting due to the economy, BLM and the Fish and Wildlife Service will together identify relatively uncontroversial timber sales that would get "wood to the mill" and avoid lawsuits. Western Oregon's forests will temporarily operate under the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, one that was much more restrictive in the amount of logging it allowed, the department said.
The timber industry, meanwhile, was frustrated by the decision's coming at this late stage, after the Western Oregon Plan Revisions (WOPR) took five years to complete.
"Oregon is facing double-digit unemployment rates. Implementation of the WOPR could give our timber-dependent communities a real boost," said Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, in a statement.
"Working under the Northwest Forest Plan for a while will simplify things. It will be important that timber sales volume continues during the review process. There is a lot that can be accomplished under the Plan, but not if legal challenges and injunctions continue," Partin said.
Timber harvesting in the region has been subject to long years of litigation over harm to threatened species like the spotted owl and marbled murrelet, which thrive in the high-quality habitat of the old forest stands.
Strickland said that more realistic projects would likely involve harvesting small-diameter timber. That type of wood can often come from fire management and restoration projects, although even these projects have been the subject of lawsuits because environmentalists have challenged what kinds of logs constitute "small."
Managing forests more complicated in a warming world
Harmon, however, said that removing fire fuels by thinning forests can actually sometimes remove more carbon than it saves by reducing fire risk, especially in coastal Oregon's dense old-growth stands.
And as climate change contributes to increasing wildfires, the issue highlights some of the complexities of managing forests in light of climate change.
"One of the things we've got to realize is this is not going to all be solved by the same solution," Harmon said. "If we boiled everything, we'd end up with old English cooking. It's pretty awful. We need to fry some things; we need to broil some things. Some things we don't cook at all."